Cold Case Explorations

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Hit & Run or Murder: Who Killed Stephen Smith?

This case has remained unsolved for 8 years, 4 months, and 30 days.

In 2015, Stephen Smith was on his way home from some night classes when he was killed. His body was found on a country road Hampton County, South Carolina (SC). The death was originally ruled as the result of a hit-and-run, although there was little to no evidence of it being a vehicular accident.

Rumors swirled that Smith might’ve been the victim of a hate crime because he was gay, and that he might’ve been involved with the son of one of the most prominent families in the Lowcountry: the Murdaughs. Years later, more information is coming to light, and yet no arrests have been made and no one has been prosecuted. So who killed Stephen Smith? Was this a murder or an accident? And why was he killed?

A photograph of Sandy and Stephen Smith.
A photograph of Sandy and Stephen Smith (CNN).

Table of Contents

About Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith was born on January 29, 1996. He was born premature and weighed less than 3 lbs. at birth, but managed to beat the odds and survive. He was intelligent and a bookworm, according to his mother, Sandy Smith. She said of her son:

“His room was a library…. Every dollar he got from chores, he’d be buying books. He was so smart and he always had a dream of being a doctor.”

Sandy Smith (Source: FITSNews)

He was also described as sweet and likeable by many of his classmates in high school, and seemed to have had many friends. “He was always a very sweet person, just always nice,” said one of the students who attended Wade Hampton High School with Smith. Another friend said, “I just always thought he was so funny and I admired his personality so much.” Even his teachers thought of him as a good student, with one calling him “really smart.”

A photograph of Sandy and Stephen Smith.
A photograph of Sandy and Stephen Smith (FITS News).

Troubles Being Accepted

Unfortunately, Smith faced some hardships because of his sexuality. “Stephen Smith was gay and he lived in Hampton County. God knows that couldn’t have been easy on him,” said one of the people he attended high school with, “Being from a town like that where it’s not really socially acceptable.” 

Despite this, Smith graduated from high school and was well on his way toward achieving his goals. In 2015, he was attending Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College to study nursing. However, all of Smith’s dreams came to an abrupt end in July of that year when his body was discovered on a rural road in Hampton County, South Carolina. 

The Night of the Incident

As mentioned before, Smith was taking classes at a local technical college to study nursing. The night of July 7, 2015, he had some night classes and was out late — something that wasn’t necessarily unusual for Smith.

Chat With a Friend

During the course of the investigation, authorities learned that one of Smith’s friends had talked to him on the night of July 7 around 7 or 8 PM. According to the friend, they talked about school, and he hadn’t said where he was or what he was doing that night. “He was very likeable. Not to my knowledge did anyone not like him,” the friend told police.

Runnin’ on Empty

However, when Smith went to drive home, his car ran out of gas along Highway 601. The gas cap was left off the vehicle

A South Carolina Highway Patrol photograph of Stephen Smith’s car.
A South Carolina Highway Patrol photograph of Stephen Smith’s car (WPDE).

A 911 Call Made

At 3:57 AM on July 8, 2015, a call came into Hampton County 911 regarding a white male lying in the middle of Sandy Run Road. “Hello, I was just going down along Crocketville Road. I see someone laying out,” the caller reported. The 911 operator asked if the person was lying in the road or on the side of the road, and the caller confirmed that he was “in the road.” Officers were immediately dispatched to the scene to figure out what had happened.

The Investigation

Officers were sent out to investigate the area that was mentioned in the 911 call. Trooper Rowell recounted what he came across that morning: 

“From what we’ve gathered so far, a nice, you know, young man had mechanical problems with his vehicle on the way home. Run outta fuel or had some kinda problem and started walking… When I got up to the scene, I noticed a young, white male lying in the roadway with severe head trauma. Nothing at the scene appeared that it was a vehicular accident. No torn clothes. His shoes were still on his feet. Cell phone still in his pocket.”

Trooper Rowell (Source: Murdaugh Murders)

Sergeant Moore of the South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP) took notes when Corporal M.D. Allen, also in the SCHP, contacted him. In his notes, he wrote that “he was told it appeared to be a homicide.” 

Sergeant Moore’s notes on the scene of Stephen Smith’s body.
Sergeant Moore’s notes on the scene of Stephen Smith’s body (FITSNews).

A Possible Gunshot Wound?

Other officers on scene thought that Smith might have a “possible gunshot wound” to his head. Because of the possible homicide, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) was requested to assist in the investigation.

SLED officers made a sketch of the crime scene with some measurements. They also noted that “an EMS worker stated that a projectile wound was located on the victim’s head.”

SLED officers drew a rough sketch of Smith’s crime scene.
SLED officers drew a rough sketch of Smith’s crime scene (FITSNews).

Although law enforcement thought that the laceration to Smith’s head might’ve been caused by a projectile, they were unable to find any cartridge cases. SLED agents also wrote, “It was still unclear at this time if this hole [in the victim’s head] was caused by a projectile.”

Autopsy Performed

When Smith’s body was brought in for autopsy, the pathologist was able to examine the injuries more closely. SLED officers attending the autopsy wrote in their notes that the injury to Smith’s head wasn’t caused by a projectile: “It was determined that the wound in the victim’s head was not caused by a fired projectile.” 

Ultimately, the pathologist suggested that “the victim was struck by a vehicle.” The cause of death was eventually labeled as blunt head trauma due to a motor vehicle crash. Other injuries noted on Smith’s body included a partially dislocated right shoulder, cuts and bruises on both hands and arms, blood in airways, and multiple fractures on the right side of his skull. The autopsy report stated:

“In light of historical information and the autopsy findings, it is the opinion of the pathologist that the decedent died as the result of blunt head trauma sustained in a motor vehicle crash in which the decedent was a pedestrian struck by a vehicle.”

Stephen Smith’s Autopsy Report (Source: FITSNews)

The manner of death —accident, suicide, homicide, natural causes, or undetermined — was left as undetermined.

Photos from the scene where Stephen Smith’s body was found.
Photos from the scene where Stephen Smith’s body was found (Crime Online).

Questions About the Autopsy Ruling

Sergeant Moore, one of the SCHP officers who’d been on the scene, called the pathologist to understand why Smith’s death had been ruled as the result of a motor vehicle crash. The pathologist explained that there was no gunshot wound, nor any bullet found during the autopsy. “Since the body was found in the roadway, she could only theorize that it had to be a motor vehicle that caused the death,” Moore wrote in his notes.

When Moore asked specifically why the ruling was a motor vehicle accident with the sort of head injury Smith had sustained, the pathologist said, “It was not her job to figure that out, it was mine.”

No Evidence of a Car Crash

At the scene of the crime, no evidence of any car parts or pieces were found — no broken glass or any fragments from headlights. Another SCHP was sent back to the scene around 6:00 PM that day, and he didn’t find any evidence of a collision either. Notes say that the officer “could find no debris at all.” Another officer was sent, and yet again, no debris was found.

Additionally, Smith’s clothes and shoes were examined for any trace evidence of a vehicle crash. No automotive paint was found on his shoes, shorts, or shirt

However, some 1-milimeter thick blue paint chips were found on other pieces of evidence, although it’s not clear if these chips came from the scene or during the processing of the evidence as it passed through the chain of custody. According to a database accessible by authorities, this paint could have been from an industrial tool, sign post, dumpster, or a 1982–1988 model Toyota

Rape Kit Ordered

At some point during the investigation, a rape kit was ordered on Smith. This seems like an odd decision if authorities believed his death was due to an automobile accident. 

Was Smith Walking in the Road?

Authorities investigating the case stated that Smith began walking home along Sandy Run Road after his car ran out of gas. However, his family has disputed this claim. “I just don’t believe my son would have been walking in the middle of the road like that,” said Smith’s mother, Sandy. Police notes also confirm this:

Notes from officers stating that Stephen Smith’s family confirmed he wouldn’t have been walking in the road.
Notes from officers stating that Stephen Smith’s family confirmed he wouldn’t have been walking in the road (FITSNews).

Many Interviews Conducted

During the course of the investigation into Smith’s death, authorities interviewed a number of people, trying to figure out exactly what had happened on that warm July night.

Smith’s “Boyfriend” Interviewed

A man came forward to authorities, claiming to have been Smith’s boyfriend, although Smith’s family disputed this fact. Regardless, the man reported that Smith had been harassed on the night of his death and had been harassed before by “rednecks in a big truck with big mud tires.”

Smith’s Family Interviewed

When Smith’s family was interviewed, one member stated that Smith had been acting secretive and had been coming home late. They also stated that they didn’t believe that the “boyfriend” who had come forward was actually in a relationship with Smith.

More police notes regarding an interview with one of Stephen Smith’s family members.
More police notes regarding an interview with one of Stephen Smith’s family members (FITSNews).

However, the family member also mentioned that they’d been contacted by Randy Murdaugh, a lawyer who stated that he would take on Smith’s case free of charge. Another relative reported that several people came up to her, saying that the Murdaugh boys were behind Smith’s murder

The Murdaugh boys were Buster and Paul Murdaugh, some former students who’d attended the same school that Smith had gone to. They also had played on a baseball team with Smith. At that point in time, the relative dismissed the rumors and didn’t believe them.

Smith’s Mother Interviewed

When Sandy, Smith’s mother, was interviewed by authorities, she also was skeptical about the man claiming to be Smith’s boyfriend. She also reported that her son had been missing school lately, which was unlike him because he was a studious person who took his academics seriously. There was also someone she mentioned who had been “giving [Smith] trouble,” although they’d eventually become friends and worked out their differences.

Lastly, Sandy mentioned the rumors she’d heard about the Murdaugh boys being involved. “The rumor that’s going around Hampton that everybody keeps coming up to me and saying it was Murdaugh boys,” she told the officer, although this information was never written down in the police notes.

More crime scene photos, this time of Stephen Smith’s car.
More crime scene photos, this time of Stephen Smith’s car (Crime Online).

Rumors During the Smith Death Investigation

During the original investigation into Smith’s death, authorities interviewed a number of people, many of whom had information to offer. Much of it was rumors and hearsay that couldn’t necessarily be verified but was still potentially relevant.

Later that year, in December 2015, an email came into authorities mentioning the (Buster) Murdaugh name again.

Notes by authorities about an email received.
Notes by authorities about an email received (FITSNews).

Overall, the Murdaugh name was mentioned over 40 times during the course of the investigation. Despite this, SCHP made few attempts to contact Buster Murdaugh, and he didn’t return the phone call or email.

Years Later, No Justice

Despite all the rumors relating to what really happened to Smith, the death was still ruled as the result of a hit-and-run accident, despite there being little to no evidence that supported this ruling. No Murdaugh family member was ever interviewed by authorities, either. A friend of Smith’s explained:

“As soon as the Murdaugh name was tossed into the mix of having something to do with, like, relationship-wise with Stephen, I feel like the view on his case changed entirely. It went from finding justice for Stephen to defending the Murdaughs and making sure that everyone knew that they had nothing to do with it.”

Smith’s Friend (Source: Murdaugh Murders)

Former lead investigator Todd Proctor also told the media that he’s never agreed with the original autopsy findings:

“As any investigator, you go off of the evidence — there was no evidence that pointed towards this being a hit and run, or a vehicle even being involved in it. It looked like it was more staged. Like possibly the body had been placed in the roadway.”

Fmr. Lead Investigator Todd Proctor (Source: People)

So, for the better part of a decade, Smith’s case was set aside as a hit-and-run. But who were the Murdaughs? And why was their name continually being brought up in relation to the Stephen Smith case?

The Murdaugh Family

To provide those who don’t know with a bit of background information, I’ll briefly cover some of the events that occurred over the past decade with the Murdaugh family. Note that there are tons of resources, news articles, documentaries, and videos online available if you’re interested in learning more about the Murdaugh family and the strange deaths surrounding them. 

Family History

The Murdaugh family was very well-known and respected family for some time in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. A string of Murdaughs had served as prominent attorneys in the area, including Alex Murdaugh, who was Buster’s father, as well as several generations of Murdaughs before him.

Alex Murdaugh was married to Maggie Murdaugh, and together, the couple had two sons: Paul and Buster. For a long time, the family was held in high regard. However, there have been several strange deaths and incidents that occurred over the past decade or so that caused people to view the family with some scrutiny. One of the men authorities interviewed explained:

“I think it’s a situation when you grow up and your family is kinda high profile and you get away with some things because of your family name and you’re given, given, and given things. You become invincible in a way and you get a little liquor and you think you’re untouchable.”

Interviewee (Source: FITS News)
From left to right: Buster, Maggie, Paul, and Alex Murdaugh.
From left to right: Buster, Maggie, Paul, and Alex Murdaugh (CBS News).

Timeline of Events

Below is a basic timeline of events outlining why many believe that the Murdaughs may have had something to do with Smith’s death. Note that this timeline is not all-encompassing and is only meant to provide more background information for how the Murdaughs may be tied to the Smith case.

Case Updates

Thankfully, there have been several recent updates in the Stephen Smith case, perhaps edging this one closer to justice for him and his family.

June 2021: Smith’s Case Reopened

Authorities in South Carolina announced that Stephen Smith’s case was going to be reopened after years of being classified as a hit-and-run accident. “While the many questions about my son’s death remain, this action gives me hope that we will get justice for my Stephen,” said his mother, Sandy Smith.

Stephen Smith’s yearbook photo.
Stephen Smith’s yearbook photo (Count on News 2).

March 2023: GoFundMe Established

In March 2023, a GoFundMe was established by Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith, in an attempt to raise funds to have her son’s body exhumed and a second autopsy conducted. It quickly gained traction and has far surpassed its original $15,000 goal.

March 2023: Smith’s Death Ruled a Homicide

Due in part to the circumstances surrounding the Alex Murdaugh trial, Smith’s cause and manner of death was re-examined. With the money raised in Sandy Smith’s GoFundMe, Smith’s body was exhumed and after further examination, authorities ruled that his death was in fact a homicide.

March 2023: Buster Releases Statement

On March 20, 2023, Buster Murdaugh released a public statement that denies any involvement with Stephen Smith or his untimely demise. He wrote:

“These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false. I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.”

Buster Murdaugh (Source: ABC 7 Chicago)

Theories on What Happened

As with many cases, there are a number of theories out there about what actually happened to Smith. Many still point to the idea of a car crash while others whole-heartedly believe that the Murdaughs are in some way involved. 

Smith’s Death was a Hit-and-Run Accident

Some suggest that Smith’s death was the result of a hit-and-run accident, as the original autopsy report stated. However, many don’t believe this to be the case, citing a lack of evidence at the scene: no broken glass, no skid marks, no debris consistent with a motor vehicle crash. Furthermore, since Smith’s death was reclassified as a homicide in March 2023, this theory holds much less weight than it might’ve before.

Stephen Smith’s headstone.
Stephen Smith’s headstone (People).

Buster Murdaugh was Involved Somehow

One of the main theories out there is that Buster Murdaugh was somehow involved in Stephen Smith’s death. In addition to the rumors gathered by authorities, a number of both boys’ friends from high school have come out and stated that they, too, heard rumors of a potential relationship:

“The stories that went around that I’ve heard so many times were that Buster and Stephen had a secret relationship, and they were wanting to come out to Buster’s family.”

Friend of Smith’s (Source: Murdaugh Murders)

However, it seems that Buster being gay wouldn’t have been acceptable in the eyes of the Murdaugh family. One former classmate of both Buster and Smith said:

“There were so many rumors swirling about that Buster and Stephen were intimate together. Being gay in the Murdaugh family would have been looked down upon.”

Former Classmate (Source: Murdaugh Murders)

Paul’s girlfriend also reported hearing the Murdaughs refer to Smith in a derogatory way, calling him a “faggot,” further strengthening the idea that coming out to Buster’s parents would have been extremely difficult. Due to all of this, some have suggested that Buster had something to do with Smith’s death, mostly in an attempt to silence him and prevent him from revealing that Buster himself was gay. 

Random Person(s) Killed Smith

Another theory is that Smith was targeted by unknown random persons because of his sexuality. As many people have stated, being gay in Hampton County wasn’t an easy thing to be. It’s possible that Smith was the target of hateful people who ended up taking things too far and killing him.

What Do I Think Happened

Because authorities have recently reclassified this case as a homicide, it seems that there really are only a few plausible explanations regarding Smith’s death: it was either a random attack or a targeted one, perhaps because of his sexuality. 

Was Buster Involved?

The fact that so many different people reported hearing rumors about Buster’s involvement in Smith’s death is intriguing. Why would so many people, some of whom knew each other but many of whom didn’t, be reporting essentially the same thing? 

Whether or not Buster Murdaugh was involved with Smith’s death is impossible to say at this point in time and with so little direct evidence. There are plenty of rumors floating around about his potential involvement, but rumors can’t get a conviction in a court of law. You need evidence, be it direct or circumstantial, and right now, authorities don’t seem to have that.

Lack of Investigation is Troubling

What gets me about this case is that even if this had unequivocally been a hit-and-run accident, Smith’s killer would still somewhere out there. And apparently, for about eight years, that was acceptable. 

Why wasn’t there more of an effort made to find this mysterious driver who supposedly hit and killed Smith? Why did authorities all but stop investigating the case when the Murdaugh name was brought into the equation? Why did Smith’s family have to wait so long to have any headway made in this case? There are just so many unanswered questions that don’t paint authorities in a good light.

More Information Likely to Come

With the case being reclassified as a homicide, I hope that we will soon find out more about what really happened to Smith that night. For too long, his family and friends have been waiting for answers. It’s long past time for the perpetrator or perpetrators to be brought to justice for the death of Stephen Smith.

Do You Have Information?

There is a $35,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in Stephen Smith’s death investigation. If you have any information regarding the death of Stephen Smith, please call SLED at (803) 737–9000 or (800) 225-5753 and ask for investigative services. You can also email tips to 

Stephen Smith’s yearbook information.
Stephen Smith’s yearbook information (Post and Courier).

Cold Case Questions

  • What do you think happened to Stephen Smith?
  • Do you think the Murdaughs had anything to do with Smith’s death?
  • Will Smith’s case ever be solved?

Let me know what you think about this case in the comment section below!

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